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The servers cannot take the strain, Captain!

A San Francisco start-up has bought the rights to create a large online game based on "Star Trek."

A San Francisco start-up plans to boldly go where no game developer has gone before with an online game based on the cult TV series "Star Trek."

Perpetual Entertainment announced on Tuesday that it has signed a licensing deal with Viacom Consumer Products, owner of the "Star Trek" franchise. The deal covers the original series and all TV and movie spinoffs.

The agreement makes Perpetual the latest company looking to tap into the potentially lucrative but troublesome market for widely popular multiplayer online games, PC games that allow players to tap into a large online universe and interact with hundreds of other players.

Games such as EverQuest and Korean smash Lineage have attracted hundreds of thousands of players that pay monthly subscription fees. But the market is also littered with a number of titles that didn't pan out as planned, such as "The Sims Online," the sparsely populated online rendition of the smash offline game.

Joe Keene, CEO of Perpetual and a former executive at leading game publisher Electronic Arts, said the company is relying on game innovations, as much as the familiar characters, and settings to make its game--tentatively dubbed "Star Trek Online"--a hit.

"Even with the biggest franchise in the world, if the game play isn't compelling, it's not going to work," he said.

"Star Trek Online" will include numerous opportunities for shooting phasers and exploring alien terrain, Keene said, balancing out the quests and character building typical of role-playing games.

"We believe very strongly that action adventure games are underrepresented among massively multiplayer games," Keene said. "We think the dynamic that works extraordinarily well in offline games can be bought to online games."

Perpetual plans to have a beta version of the "Star Trek" game ready in 2006, with a final launch in 2007. In the meantime, the company plans to use Web forums and other outlets to connect with potential players and learn whether they'd rather confront Khan or battle the Borg.

"We're going to be very focused on sharing information with the community and fan base at large," said Chris McKibbin, Perpetual's president and also a former EA executive. "We really want to listen to them, understand what their biggest desires and biggest concerns are, and involve them in shaping the broad direction of the game."

"Star Trek" is to be the last of the geek entertainment triad to enter the online gaming world. "Star Wars Galaxies," the online version of the George Lucas universe, has steadily built an audience of hundreds of thousands. The upcoming "Middle Earth Online," based on "The Lord of the Rings," will tempt Tolkien fans late this year.